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Leicester Special Collections

Ovid and Virgil

The Metamorphosis

Frontispiece of Ovid's Metamorphosis. The title is flanked by Love and Wisdom. Translated into English by George Sandys, 1632.

The influence of Ovid on Shakespeare has been extensively recognised and discussed. The 1st century AD Roman poet’s impact on the 16th century English dramatist is most visible in the long poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Yet traces of his influence can be found in almost every play and sonnet. More than source material and inspiration, Shakespeare took from Ovid a method of composition and a way of viewing the world that profoundly shaped his writing.

Shakespeare would have first encountered Ovid at school and practised his translating and writing skills by reading the Metamorphosis as well as less known Ovidian texts, such as the Heroids. This was the beginning of a lifelong fascination with the Latin poet to whom he kept coming back over and over again during his writing career. The plays where Ovid’s influence is perhaps most obvious are A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the cross dressing comedies, and the later romances. The Winter’s Tale and Cymbeline, for instance, have plots where characters, in one way or another, go through significant physical and psychological transformations. Yet change is also evident in plays that move from revenge and the threat of death towards forgiveness, reconciliation, and the promise of a new life in marriage, such as Much Ado About Nothing, Measure for Measure, and The Tempest.

However, Ovid was not the only Roman poet to have captured Shakespeare’s imagination. Although Virgil’s influence is less evident than Ovid’s, he has also left traces in the poems and plays, particularly in the classical references we find in Henry V. Virgil’s Anaeid can also be traced in the play-within-the-play in Hamlet, in the plot of Titus Andronicus, and in the plot reversal of Anthony and Cleopatra.

From Virgil, Shakespeare took in particular the concept of how characters can be psychologically affected by storytelling. Some of his characters, such as Othello and Richard II, are capable of infusing their own narratives with remarkable emotional force.